Mount Albert Grammar school is one of the largest, most diverse high schools in New Zealand – and its headmaster, Patrick Drumm, is among the country’s most outspoken educators.
Tensions were high on the night before voting began for the 2020 general election. Covid-19 was weighing on people’s minds as polling stations opened and the two referendum, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, had sparked fiery debate.
In the midst of that emotion, as those on either side began to imagine a world in which they had won, Patrick Drumm, headmaster of Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS) sat at his computer and typed a message to the thousands of parents in his school community.
“As a school community this year, we have spoken a lot about hope as an essential value in the toolbox of a MAGS student,” his newsletter began.
“That guidance and wisdom is needed now, more than ever, as we address the disturbing prospect of a future for our young people where cannabis is legalised.”
It didn’t take long before the newsletter made it into the media, drawing outrage from those on the ‘Yes’ side of the legalisation debate. But it was far from the first time Drumm had been embroiled in public controversy.
Dressed in his MAGS-branded tie, a freshly-pressed suit and impeccably shined shoes, Drumm certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’d care an awful lot about a little bit of heat in the media now and then – in fact, his voice and presence brings to mind the demeanour of a veteran newscaster. And Drumm, sitting in his office in the majestic main building of the school he oversees, is more than happy to reflect on the other paths his life could have taken. “I was a musician,” he says, “I was a saxophonist in another life.” He jokes about the other timelines that might somewhere exist – the sports coach, the rugby referee.
On Drumm’s desk are an assortment of photographs of sportspeople – old boys and girls of MAGS. Jack Goodhue and Caleb Clarke both wore the MAGS blue and yellow before they made the All Blacks. The list of famous alumni is a long one. Established in 1922 as a competitor to fellow boys school Auckland Grammar, MAGS has produced 15 All Blacks, a prime minister and countless leading scientists, artists and other well-known figures in its nearly 100-year history. In years to come, Drumm may see a selection of Black Ferns alongside his All Blacks photos – in 2000 MAGS accepted its first intake of young women.
Only seven people have sat in the headmaster’s seat now occupied by Drumm, and despite the now incredibly diverse student body that bustles through the school’s classrooms, the portraits of headmasters gracing the corridor in the main building have one glaring commonality. Despite the school’s own policy to have a staff that reflects its student body, and the large percentage of Māori, Pacific and female students, there has never been a woman or person of colour in the headmaster role.
Drumm is now in his seventh year as MAGS headmaster. In that time the roll has climbed from just over 2,700 to more than 3,200, around a third of whom are Māori or Pasifika.
Drumm poses for a photo next to a painting of MAGS’ main building hanging in his office, then steps outside to stand in front of the real thing. The school grounds are quiet, a few juniors walking to their final class of the day are the only sign the school year isn’t yet over. The day before seniors were sent away for their study break before the year’s final exams.
Brought up in an era when schools still clung tightly to tradition, Drumm admits he had it pretty easy as a teenager. He was head boy of his high school, St Peters’ College in Epsom, and says he was lucky that he ticked the right boxes to be considered a “good student” by the ideals of the day. “It was a traditional boys’ school so there wasn’t huge support for diversity of interest. Fortunately for me I could catch a ball and run fast, so that built me credibility.”
After finishing university, Drumm says it was a “natural progression” to step into the classroom. He’d coached sports teams for years and had found a passion for guiding young people, whether on the sports field or, where he would end up: in front of a chemistry classroom. He misses the classroom – his one regret about the direction of his career.
“One of the challenges as you move through building a career in education is it can take you further away from the one-on-one contact with students… that is something I miss immensely.” He says he’s dedicated to keeping one foot in the classroom, and tries to make time to teach every year.
One 2019 MAGS graduate The Spinoff spoke to said it was a pleasant surprise to see how Drumm appeared to take an interest in the students – walking around at lunch time and paying visits to the various student groups holding rehearsals, meetings and other gatherings in the school. “You saw him a lot.”
Drumm doesn’t define his leadership style easily. It’s a complicated job, running a school with a population the size of Raglan, and certainly takes a leader with a strong sense of purpose. His goal, he wants to make clear, is to serve the present needs of the school’s diverse population while honouring its past as a prestigious secondary school.
“We like to look back and celebrate our tradition but we’re a totally different school than we would have been back then. The school and the board and leadership of the school is willing to evolve. You have to be relevant, if you’re not relevant you’re dead in the water really.”
Drumm is quick to note the need for schools to keep abreast of changing times. The younger generation is far more inclusive than his own, he says, and needs to be listened to when it comes to diversity of thought, image and identity.
“This is where you learn from young people,” he says. “I think it’s just amazing how young people are leading the way with this and we have so much to learn from them.”
He’s talking about the changes MAGS has made since they started to accept girls in 2000. Initially classes were strictly split into boys and girls until students entered senior levels, but now provisions have been put in place to ensure students are able to enter the class they identify with. Back in his own school years, he says, the conversation around gender identity and fluidity would have never happened.
“It’s just not an issue at all for this generation of young people, they’re really incredible. I grew up in a generation where issues like that, people would have been very uncomfortable with.”
The road to inclusivity isn’t without its bumps. An ex-MAGS Māori student The Spinoff spoke to says the school was a great place to learn, with a strong Māori student hub. At times, however, she felt that the Māori and Pacific cohort were used as tokens among majority Pākehā leadership teams. In her five years at MAGS there had never been more than three Māori prefects at a time, out of the over 40 students chosen each year.
“MAGS seemed like they wanted to look like they were diverse and inclusive whereas on the support side there wasn’t the same amount of effort. They put us at the front but then behind the scenes they wouldn’t give us anything.”
Drumm says he hopes MAGS is a welcoming place for its thousands of students and that each of his over 200 staff have the support they require to excel. After all, he says, the traditional grammar school model that prioritises academic achievement over other measures of student growth is becoming ever more irrelevant. That Drumm highlights non-academic achievement isn’t surprising considering the impressive arts and cultural slate and sporting accolades the school prides itself on.
For the MAGS community, the Covid-19 pandemic meant a lot more than just a disrupted school year. It was also a test of Drumm’s leadership. In early August 2020, Drumm was notified by the Ministry of Health that a student attending the school had tested positive for the virus.
Controlling the spread of information and communicating clearly with the school community about MAGS’ Covid plan was one of the biggest challenges Drumm has faced as a headmaster. He credits the government’s communication with helping them through, but he admits it wasn’t easy.
“There was no blueprint and everyone was scrambling here, the ministries – education and health – were working to get that information and get it out to us.”
When a second student tested positive just two weeks later, the ministry urged all staff and students to get tested as a precaution. Drumm says it was the trust of his community that helped the school quickly recover and reopen.
“When you deal with crises, as we do in a school like this from time to time, the first go-to is to gather. The irony is we weren’t able to gather so the very thing you do to lean on each other and stand together we couldn’t do.”
With the Marist cluster, which totalled 96 confirmed cases, just minutes up the road from MAGS, that stretch of Auckland was on high alert and parents needed reassurance that schools were safe after lockdown eased.
“It took some courage to reopen our schools in this part of the woods. We called on courage and the science and communicated what we had been told,” says Drumm.
After Covid-19 had subsided in the area, Drumm made headlines again in October – for a much more controversial reason. In a newsletter sent out the day before the 2020 cannabis referendum titled ‘Hope not Dope’, Drumm urged parents to “put young people first” and said legalising cannabis was a “disastrous prospect”.
“The seemingly frivolous approach of some commentators to tomorrow’s referendum has been concerning. The overwhelming evidence of the disastrous impact of cannabis on the young brain has been dismissed,” the newsletter read.
While the statement didn’t explicitly tell parents how to vote, the message was clear.
Many parents and members of the MAGS community were unhappy with the messaging. Comments under a New Zealand Herald story posted on Facebook criticised Drumm for sharing his personal political opinion. It was “unprofessional” and “completely inappropriate”, commenters said.
“I have members of the school community who fed back to me a lot about that,” Drumm says now, alluding to the backlash. While he says he took the concerns seriously, he refuses to concede he crossed a political line.
“We all want the same thing – nobody wants their 14-year-old smoking dope. Most people would want some education around that and we’re an educational organisation,” he says.
Asked whether it’s his place as an educator to prosleytise about the dangers of cannabis legalisation, Drumm responds by rhetorically asking whether it was former prime minister Helen Clark’s place to comment either.
“I’m just trying to set up what [MAGS] stand for – we are probably seen more in a conservative light and if that’s around standards, I’m comfortable with that.”
Keeping drugs out of schools has long been a priority for Drumm. One ex-MAGS student The Spinoff spoke to remembers being aware that some students smoked cannabis on school property, but says it still came as a shock when Drumm started bringing drug-sniffing dogs through the school in 2017.
“They would walk through at lunch times and morning tea times. There would be a guy in a high-vis and he would walk through with the deputies and sniff around,” she says. Changes made to the Education Act in 2014 allowed contractors to bring in dogs and conduct searches of “school property”, but could not search students.
In an article at the time, Drumm said the dogs were there to create “the best and safest possible learning environment”.
Five years as principal of Aorere College during the early-2000s era of “legal highs” – synthetic cannabis and other high-inducing substances that could be purchased over the counter – influenced Drumm’s thinking on the topic of substance abuse. He recalls synthetic cannabis having a “catastrophic” effect on its young users. “It was really very upsetting to see our students targeted.”
He says he was concerned that a legal cannabis market would have been just as poorly policed as the R18 vaping and drinking markets currently are. “From an organisational perspective we would really worry if it was going to be handed over to government agencies to exert a level of control and safety for young people. There’s no evidence that’s happening anywhere else.”
Despite priding himself in having an ear to the ground of the school, Drumm can sometimes appear oblivious to student sentiment. The cancellation of the last school day for year 13 students in 2018 prompted a sit-in from students affected, after they had been threatened with punishment if they were to show up to school on the day.
A year 12 student at the time says it was “a really dumb decision” to cancel the last day, which was the school’s attempt to stop “prank day” antics that are common on the last day of school before senior exams.
By the time her own last day came around, the school had taken a new position. “I think they felt the heat from their decision [in 2018]. For us, they tried to make it special. They held a barbecue and a special shirt signing event and really tried to make up for the fact that they ruined the last day the year before.”
Drumm agrees that the 2018 measure didn’t get the result the school was after, but says the school had a mandate to keep everyone safe. In previous years, some of the pranks had crossed the line, he claims.
The last day of school should be a “time to lift up your community – you can fund raise or dress up and all that kind of thing. But that’s quite different from letting off fireworks into a crowd.”
The then year 12 student doesn’t remember anything nearly as dangerous as fireworks in a crowd during the end-of-school “prank days” she witnessed. She remembered flour bombs, egging and an oiled-up hallway (she does admit this one was dangerous), but says once the school started putting on more events on that final day, the pranking dissipated.
For all his recent controversies, Drumm remains optimistic about his legacy. When it comes time to hang up his MAGS lion tie, he hopes he’ll have helped set thousands of students on the path to happy and fulfilling lives.
“We always talk about our results but that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is where those people are in 10 years or 20 years. Are they successful family people, are they adding value to the community, are they caring, are they good parents?”
And as Mount Albert Grammar School approaches its 100th year, he’s reminded that the essence of the school is neither its buildings nor history, but the people it serves now and into the future.
“The school is a centre that draws together many aspects of the community, but the people are the heart. We’re very lucky, and long may it continue after me.”